It was a Friday morning when the calls began coming in, just days after the article on Chelsie Kryst’s suicide was published in the ABA Journal.1
“How could this have happened to someone like her?” callers asked. “She was so young,” they said. “She had so much success,” some noted. Others wondered, “How did this happen again to a member of the profession I chose?”
The calls poured in from law students and lawyers who just wanted to talk. Others called wanting to understand what happened. A few requested presentations and educational outreach from Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program staff on suicide prevention in the legal community. But the calls all had one thing in common: a clear indication that the need to discuss suicide was vital. For as difficult as suicide is to talk about, it’s even more dangerous to ignore.
Let’s talk about some hard truths. Coming in just after cancer and heart disease, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among attorneys; the rate of death by suicide for lawyers is six times the suicide rate for the general population.2 With one suicide every 15 minutes and more than 34,000 suicides per year in the United States, this data has startling implications for the legal community.3 A strong correlation exists between suicide and depression and we know attorneys experience depression at a greater rate than the general population.4 The groundbreaking 2016 study, “The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys,” revealed that nearly 46% of attorneys reported suffering from depression at some point during their careers and 11.5% acknowledged suicidal thoughts.5
I clearly remember the first time in my professional career I had a client bring up suicide. I was working toward my master’s degree in counseling while working 40 hours per week as an intern at Community Mental Health. As I sat down to begin a session, the individual sitting across from me, who had been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, told me that the idea of suicide was becoming harder for her to disregard.
I froze. So many thoughts were going through my mind but, most prominently, I was worried that something I would say could make the situation worse. If I was having these thoughts as someone with an undergraduate degree in psychology, one year in a graduate program in counseling, and countless hours of supervision and education, it’s no wonder people shy away from this discussion — particularly lawyers, who are trained to focus on thinking rather than feeling, being impersonal and objective, and routinely placed in the role of solving problems for others as opposed to asking for help themselves.6
Our fear of this topic isn’t going to make the problem go away, so we’ll explore warning signs of suicide and the key suicide prevention strategy — making it part of open and honest conversations. First, let’s debunk some common suicide myths.
1) Talking about suicide will increase its likelihood: FALSE! Research shows that not only do prevention strategies exist for suicide, but that talking about suicide decreases suicidal ideation.7 Having this discussion can decrease the stigma associated with having suicidal thoughts and encourage individuals to seek help.
2) Most suicides happen suddenly and without warning: FALSE! The truth is warning signs accompany most suicides.8 These signs can include (but are not limited to) expressions of worthlessness; threatening or talking about killing oneself; loss of interest in hobbies, relationships, and social activities; increased substance abuse; reckless behavior; withdrawing from family and friends; and/or displaying dramatic mood changes. Again, this list is not exhaustive.
3) People who commit suicide are selfish and taking the easy way out: FALSE! People who die by suicide are oftentimes not looking to die, but rather to end their suffering.9 They may suffer from a (treatable) mental health condition. They may have experienced physical or sexual violence, child abuse, bullying, or other forms of violence or injury.10
Experts agree that the key prevention strategy to suicide is talking about it.11 So what, exactly, can one do if they are concerned that someone is suicidal? Are you thinking about taking your life? Be direct and ASK! We had the privilege of sitting down with Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program Director Erica Grigg for the January 2022 SBM On Balance Podcast12 to learn just how this is done.
A: Ask the question. Ask it directly. Are you suicidal? Research shows that asking about suicide won’t cause or encourage it; in fact, it can prevent it. Asking about suicide can provide a suffering individual with tremendous relief. Avoid indirect questions such as, “Are you okay?” These questions are likely to elicit vague responses. Be direct.
S: Seek more information. Be ready and willing to listen. Avoid judging or shaming the other person. Take what they say seriously, and don’t try to interrupt or rush the conversation.
K: Know where to find resources. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Contact your local lawyers’ assistance program. Call your local community mental health agency. Finally, if the individual is a threat to themselves or others, dial 911.
Legal professionals suffer from depression at higher rates than the general population,13 and there is a strong correlation between depression and suicide. Talking about suicide can help prevent it.14 To learn more about suicide prevention in the legal community, contact the Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program or listen to January’s edition of the State Bar of Michigan: On Balance podcast. Help is here when you need it.